The Unexplored Summon Blood Sign:Volume9 Stage3

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Stage 03: Not Even Coughing Up Blood Is Enough

“Help me.”

“Brother understands the true meaning of those words.”

(Stage 03 Open 08/22 13:30)

Not Even Coughing Up Blood Is Enough

Part 1

Kyousuke was not too surprised with what they found in this more rural area.

“Dowwwn wiiiith…theee Queeen…”

Below the fluffy cumulonimbus clouds, the train station area only had a shopping district with rusty shutters covering everything and a single giant shopping center that appeared to have absorbed all of the economic activity. A video production van must have been parked in the parking lot there because he could hear a cracked and dispirited voice from a speaker in that direction. The entire area had the desolate atmosphere of a summer festival where no one had shown up.

Toy Dream’s international revived city program had split the population into two groups: the metropolises flooded with lights that held year-round festivals as giant amusement parks, and the shadows that were not able to share in the festivities. This was clearly part of the latter.

And it was a truly hopeless situation since they just had to go bankrupt if they wanted to share in those festivities. If they worked hard to save money and actually managed to survive, they ended up like this. That was why Toy Dream’s charity work was often called an aerial bombing or invasion using the economy as a shield.

“Yawn.”

Aoi really stood out with her long silver hair, the white sarashi around her chest, and her shrine maiden outfit, but even with her hands on her hips, she did not gather much attention.

But that was because there was no one around.

The taxi boarding zone and the bus stop were both deserted.

Only the cicada cries were louder here. Was that due to the artificial-looking forests full of cedars and cypresses, or was it due to the lack of noise from Toy Dream 35’s ubiquitous parades and large LCD screens?

“This is incredible. The place feels like a video tape that’s been recorded over too many times. Is this really the home of Doctor S who brought the world one step away from disaster?”

“If you were developing a chemical or bacteriological weapon, would you really place your lab in the middle of a city of a million? I’m guessing a run-down and inconspicuous area was more to his liking. …And when you say video tapes, do you mean magnetic tapes? Even credit cards use chips nowadays.”

“Sigh, kids these days know nothing about atmosphere. I bet you don’t see spirit photos or UFO videos much anymore because no one uses film or tapes. Why would you take those away from me!? I always looked forward to those summer TV specials in my cave!!”

Hearing that made Aoi sound like part of a horror story herself. And large reels of magnetic tape were actually being used for backup systems in banks and such to prevent loss of data in case of an unexpected power surge or something. You know, those things you see in the background of giant robot labs in old tokusatsu shows or anime. If Aoi was to be believed, it was possible the tsuchinoko, mothman, and other unidentified creatures had moved over to that format for their exhibitionist needs.

Aoi held the back of her hand to her forehead, but more due to the bright sun than the sweat.

“So what do we do now? Is it still a fair distance away? It doesn’t look like there are any buses or taxis to use.”

“It won’t take that long. Doctor S would have used a lab far away from human civilization for the first generation. Maybe deep in the mountains or on a remote island. But if he wanted some level of human interaction and transportation options, he would not place his HQ in too difficult a location.”

“Is that how it works?”

“It’s within walking distance, so don’t worry.”

That said, the August sun was beating down on them.

As they walked along the shimmering asphalt, Meinokawa Aoi was quick to loosen her sarashi, grab the chest of her shrine maiden outfit, and fan herself with it. It was a perfect demonstration of the North Wind and the Sun. By the time they arrived, she might be soaked in sweat and looking quite indecent with her cheeks flushed pink.

“Phew, there really isn’t anyone around here, is there? Especially children. Even Houbi Village had more life than this.”

“It isn’t an abandoned ghost town or anything. But when it’s this hot out, all the kids are probably in their air-conditioned homes playing video games.”

“Everything I hear about modern children is so depressing.”

“You’re one to talk. My phone is full of icons for social games I certainly didn’t download, like this one where you launch balls with a rubber band or this one where you dig into the dirt to knock down towers. And let’s not forget all the in-game purchases I found charged to my account! What were you doing while hiding in my cruiser, you freeloader!?”

“Hey, you have no one to blame but yourself for taking so long to recover. It’s your fault for lying in bed instead of getting after me!! Heh heh heh. I still know how to act like a child! I’m young in body and soul!”

They sensed a definite change while discussing that.

All sounds had vanished.

Including the cicada cries that had been a constant companion.

Even the faint sounds of everyday life coming from the houses.

It was a deafening silence, like inside a cave full of stagnant air. Meinokawa Aoi looked displeased, so it may have reminded her of her shrine located deep, deep, deep belowground.

“This is different,” she said.

“It is,” agreed Kyousuke.

Aoi must have realized this was not the time to worry about the heat. She retightened the sarashi that acted as her vessel restraint as she said more.

“This mood of self-restrain makes cheerful voices feel like a taboo. But what are we protecting by suppressing our voices and preserving this mourning silence?”

The answer soon revealed itself.

The narrow roads of the residential district crisscrossed like a go board. Instead of apartments, these roads were lined with two-story houses and single-story houses with an otherwise identical design. It was like being inside a box of luxury chocolates or a house of mirrors that reflected the same image over and over again. It had to all be carefully maintained, but if you forgot to check the house numbers, it would be hard to tell where in the neighborhood you were.

And within all that, a single house stood out from the rest.

Even though it was the exact same design as the others.

“…”

It was a perfectly normal house with a concrete wall around it. It had a red roof, white walls, and a balcony on the second floor. It also appeared to have TV antennae for terrestrial and satellite broadcasts. There was a metal lattice door in front of the main entrance, although it did not look like it would do much to keep anyone out.

There was a nameplate next to the intercom.

It said Shiroyama.

“What is this?”

But Meinokawa Aoi had to question the ordinary house she saw.

Her artificial face tensed a bit.

Yes.

At the end of the mysterious experiment, the entire Shiroyama family had supposedly left.

And yet.

Aoi raised her voice nearly to a yell as she peeked over the concrete wall to view the yard.

“How long has it been left like this? I don’t actually have any scientific data to back up the folk belief that houses quickly fall into disrepair with no one living in them, but there is no way a house would look this pristine after nearly 10 years! None of the paint is peeling and the lawn looks mowed!”

“………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………”

But Shiroyama Kyousuke did not even so much as stir as she shouted from so close by.

He stood motionless in front of the nameplate while a gust of wind blew the humid summer air across him.

He had returned.

Returned to this deep layer that had been erased from the world’s data.

This would change his thinking in some way. The recovery would begin here.

He thought he heard a click as some kind of circuit finally reconnected and the energy reached him once more.

The scene had not changed in a decade. If he wanted a logical explanation, he could assume that someone had been maintaining the place.

But he sealed away that weak opinion.

Since when did logic and common sense apply to the White Queen? Those things could be useful as a support, but binding his thoughts with them would only shorten his life.

So he knew what to say.

Time must have been stopped here.

“…”

“This is a holy ground. These coordinates hold some kind of meaning to the White Queen as well. With her, distorting time and space should not come as a surprise. In fact, it’s a little surprising we don’t see the house flipped upside down or floating in the air.”

Preserving the mourning silence.

The surrounding residents may have been bound by that subconscious reverence for a holy ground.

“Now, then.”

He was back to his childhood home.

But it was by no means a warm place. He probably would have felt more attachment to a rotting ghost house. He looked up at his starting point which was like a small but mysterious labyrinth.

“Let’s jump right on in and figure out what I can learn about my past and what it was the White Queen erased from the world. Should I wait for her here, or will the information here help me predict her behavior more accurately? Who will acquire the most accurate information first? Whatever the case, this house is sure to be the turning point.”

Part 2

Research.

An experiment.

Shiroyama Kyousuke had repeated those words over and over again.

But Meinokawa Aoi looked puzzled when she stepped through the unlocked front door. What she found inside looked just like a normal home: a shoe shelf, a plastic tank of kerosene, a fire extinguisher, bundles of old newspapers, etc. There was no dust to be seen and that cleanliness was certainly unusual, but there were none of the mysterious beakers, test tubes, analysis computers, and monsters preserved in formaldehyde she had expected to see.

The only thing of real interest was the variety of shoes.

There were adult-sized leather shoes and pumps which likely belonged to Doctor S and his wife.

The athletic shoes smaller than her hand may have been Kyousuke’s from back then.

But what about the other pair?

Those small pink shoes did not look like something Kyousuke would have worn, so who did they belong to?

“This was his lab.”

But Shiroyama Kyousuke said something odd.

He pointed at the each ordinary item in turn.

“30 days of newspapers.”

“Huh?”

“The kerosene tank has 10.295 liters remaining. The fire extinguisher, shoehorn, and umbrella stand form an equilateral triangle with 120cm sides. The umbrella stand has 8 umbrellas, which have 10, 15, 8, 12, 14, 13, 7, and 7 ribs respectively. The angle of the shoes, using Doctor S’s right shoe as the center point, have a margin of error of +2, -3, +7, -15, -1, ±0, and -4 degrees. It all looks random at first, but it all carries meaning.”

“What good is memorizing all that?”

“Nothing really,” he readily admitted. “But if I tried to line the shoes up properly, he would get mad at me. He never told me what exactly he was hitting me for, so I had to memorize it all. He could turn anything into a weapon if he wanted to. When he grabbed something, I had to figure out how I could protect myself. I had to make sure I was hit hard enough to satisfy him but not enough to seriously injure me. But I couldn’t get carried away and fight back. If I did that, the beating would be two or three times worse than normal. The only way to survive was to make him feel like he had won.”

The words that followed were truly shocking.

But that had been the norm here. An unheard storm of abuse had wreaked havoc in that closed household. Based on the size of the shoes, Kyousuke would have been 5 or 6 at the time. Domestic violence came in many forms, but a fist could do much more damage to such a small body. It was entirely possible it could have killed him.

And Doctor S was not just human garbage who could not control his emotions.

It had all been calculated.

Getting on his good side to avoid the violence had not been an option.

“Everything here was a symbol related to the various forms of invitation, awakening, and communication that form the base of the Summoning Ceremony. The most obvious example is the equilateral triangle, but everything else is the same. It all mattered: color, shape, number, straight lines, curved lines, even numbers, odd numbers, a group in alignment, a group with one or more items sticking out, etc. Doctor S never taught us anything. We had none of the answers, so it was like navigating a minefield in the dead of night. He apparently felt we would not actually absorb any of the information if he gave us a textbook and provided lectures.”

Everything he had mentioned was just in the entranceway.

The living room would have a TV and stereo, the bath would have soap and a shampoo bottle, the kitchen would have knives and a cutting board, and the kid’s rooms would have a study desk and bed.

Doctor S could turn anything into a weapon.

So Kyousuke had to understand everything in advance.

Intense did not even begin to cover it.

And Shiroyama Kyousuke was not done speaking. It did not end here.

“At first, Doctor S would beat me,” he spat out the words. “But it didn’t take long for him to figure out a more effective method. He realized I wouldn’t cry even when he beat me. So every time I screwed up, he would beat my mom or my little sister instead. It didn’t matter what I grabbed to prepare myself.”

“…”

“I really and truly thought about killing him. Although I imagine he was trying to inspire those emotions in me so he could turn me into a precision-guided missile.”

He stopped speaking there.

Suddenly, Shrine Maiden Aoi looked up. She had sensed a small presence in the living room beyond the opened door.

Was it a boy or a girl?

“Nh, nhh, nhhhh.”

She peeked through the door and saw a small figure struggling with the lid of a clear bottle. It seemed to contain multicolored candies. She took a closer look. It was hard to tell with the bangs over their face, but it appeared to be a girl.

Someone else arrived from the dining room.

“Boy?”

“…”

The completed summoner did not respond.

This was not a physical presence, but Meinokawa Aoi did not even consider reaching out a hand to see if it would pass right through the young boy. But not because he was so obviously just an image. He seemed like a snow crystal. He was surrounded by an ephemerality that made her think he would melt away at a touch.

And having just heard that this boy had accepted being beaten as normal may have played a role.

“Hand it here, *****.”

“I can do it.”

“C’mon, I’ll open it for you.”

“No!! I can do it!”

This alone might have been a heartwarming scene. It made this feel like a lived-in place rather than a creepy ghost town or dungeon.

“Then place a handkerchief or something over the lid to help grip it.”

“Like this?”

“Ahh, not the chest of your clothing…well, I guess that’s fine. Now try turning it.”

“Nghhhhh…hyah!? Yes, it came off!!”

When the lid popped off, the candies nearly spilled out from the bottle, but she just barely managed to keep them inside.

The small girl reached into the bottle and pulled out a few round candies.

“Okay, you can have this one. It’s strawberry flavor. I got it out for you.”

“I see.”

“I’ll have strawberry too.”

“Keep that up and all the strawberry ones will be gone.”

“It’s fine because we match.”

Aoi spent a while just watching this meaningless but undeniably real scene. She saw them smiling and leaning against each other, so there must have been more than just despair here.

“Wah!”

She shrieked when the two of them dashed from the living room with the candies in their mouths and moved to the entranceway where she was. She had been hesitant to touch them because she did not know how it worked, but they came to her. She reflexively crouched down and held out her arms to catch them, but they passed right through her, put on their shoes, and left through the front door.

“So they’re only an illusion. Something like a 3D image.”

She sounded somehow relieved.

But Kyousuke’s response was different.

The information missing from his mind seemed to be pleading to him in some way.

For him, logic won out over sentimentality.

He viewed their surroundings instead of the small illusions themselves.

“The supernatural elements here are remnants of the White Queen, but does this mean those remnants just grew stronger?”

“Boy?”

“Be on your guard, Aoi. She must be nearby. If we defeat the Queen, we can stop the cocoon. And if we stop the cocoon, we can stop the Colorless Little Girl!!”

Part 3

The supernatural showed no hesitation.

Her journey to learn what it means to be human had begun in earnest.

Just before Kyousuke and Aoi cut across the living room in their outdoor shoes and moved out onto the small yard, the White Queen and Shigara Masami scrambled over the concrete wall.

Then they climbed up to the second floor balcony.

While they made sure they were not casting a shadow on the yard, a voice reached them through a machine.

“Wow, that was a close shave. But wouldn’t the normal choice be to withdraw? Why are you playing ninja with a two-by-four? You aren’t sneaking into a giant Edo-period mansion.”

<Do you see anything odd from there?>

“I’m not quite sure what you’re asking about, but the colors are scattering from time to time. It isn’t going to turn out that what you’re seeing and what I’m seeing are entirely different, is it?”

Biondetta was viewing them from afar and her half-exasperated and half-impressed voice entered their ears.

“Also, Queen, watch your dress again! How many times have I warned you about this!?”

“Oh, dear. How indecent of me.”

The balcony covered a few different rooms, but none of the glass doors appeared to be locked. The White Queen and Shigara Masami slid one of them open and disappeared inside.

“Your shoes.”

<Oh, excuse me.>

The ponytail researcher with a whistle dangling from her neck removed her shoes only after the Queen pointed out her bad manners. This seemed to be a child’s room. There was some writing equipment on the study desk and the floor was littered with toys like building blocks and robot action figures.

Something flooded in.

Something unbelievably large flooded into the White Queen.

“…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………”

No one could know for sure, but the feeling piercing the White Queen’s chest here may have been identical to the one Kyousuke had experienced in front of the house.

It was like recovering each individual piece of data from a broken album. And it was mixed with the vague fear that some of the photos or videos might be entirely unrecognizable.

“How nostalgic.”

The White Queen emotionally viewed everything in the room, but she did not touch any of it.

Almost like that would be breaking a powerful taboo.

<…?>

Shigara Masami’s attention turned toward the bed next to the wall.

But instead of a normal bed, it was a bunkbed.

That meant two people had likely used this room. A closer look showed that the writing equipment and toys were a mixture of boy and girl products.

But she also noticed something else.

<Sigils?>

Yes.

Even the inconspicuous wrinkles in the bedsheets had meaning.

<Tattva, tarot, the tree of life, the creation and consecration of magical weapons, the injection and accurate control of Telesma, the structure of a catacombs, the management of incense, the psychological defenses needed for astral projection, astrological magic circles, a conversion chart for the divinities of different mythologies and religions…and lastly, the rose cross. But this is not the traditional version with the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. This is a script and graphical interface for representing the human body and the world with the 26 letters of the English alphabet. Wait, does that mean what I think it does!?>

The bare-legged White Queen only smiled faintly in her thin casual dress.

They heard a small pitter-patter.

It was rhythmic, but far too light. So at first Shigara Masami did not recognize it as human footsteps.

A small figure ran by in the narrow hallway outside the bedroom’s open door.

She thought it was a small girl.

Poorly maintained hair was a sign of abuse just like cavities and dirty clothing. This girl had long bangs that hid her eyes, but she still looked somehow familiar.

And like the needle finding its way into the record’s groove, the illusion filled in another piece of the world’s missing data.

This image of the past might be even more critical for Shiroyama Kyousuke than that girl herself.

<Wai-…>

Shigara Masami hurried out into the hallway, but the small figure was nowhere to be found.

It had always been no more than a formless illusion.

“It all leads back to Doctor S.”

The White Queen slowly walked out into the hallway.

The strength in her gaze seemed greater than before. She looked like she had retrieved something.

“Since he worked to raise people capable of using the Summoning Ceremony, he must not have thought following the manual he had created would be enough. It might be the difference between a user tapping on an app and a programmer or engineer who fully understands the syntax within. At any rate, he tried to take the horribly complicated and confusing foundation behind the Blood-Sign System and drive it into his children’s minds. He was trying to create administrators, not users.”

<…>

There was no one in the hallway, but they still faintly heard some lively voices.

The voices seemed to be coming from beyond the storage closet’s door, but they sounded like adults.

“Yes, I want to watch the magical girl show.”

“You need to keep the volume down, *****. We don’t want him to hear us.”

The young siblings may have been snuggled up next to each other watching the 1seg TV built into an electronic dictionary or something. The bright and energetic voices and music coming from the TV accentuated the gloomy atmosphere in the children’s room where Shigara Masami stood.

“It may have seemed ridiculous. And in fact, simply using the service was enough to move between the world powers and reach Award 1000. Yet Doctor S wore down his children’s lives to drive that information into them. At first glance, it does look like wasted effort, doesn’t it?”

Words flowed out.

The White Queen acted like a purifying shrine maiden who conveyed someone’s lost words.

“But my brother was able to resolve so many incidents because he understood what was happening on the inside and was not just using the service. My many worshipers broke down the Blood-Sign System and remade it into a grotesque ceremony to permanently summon me, but he immediately saw right through it because he accurately understood the program running at the foundation of the app.”

<Is that really the answer?>

“What do you mean?”

<You said Doctor S thought his Blood-Sign System could not fully control you. So he attempted to strengthen the humans using it instead of trying to complete the system and likely breaking it in the process.>

Shigara Masami had to have been overwhelmed by this small house.

It was a holy ground. It carried more weight than a giant temple on the ocean floor.

She chose her words carefully.

<Did Doctor S hope they could teach him a unified theory that went beyond the Blood-Sign System that had hit a dead end and could not be completed? So he drove all the foundational materials into his children like they were a witch’s cauldron and he waited for the magic potion to be made. It started as an unpredictable mixture of random ingredients, so he just had to pray a miraculous combination would rise to the top.>

“That is a rather fanciful interpretation, but if that were the case, he would have used more specimens. He would have gathered a thousand or even ten thousand children.”

<But in a way, Kyousuke-kun was a success.>

“?”

<The Colorless Little Girl Dedicated to a Single Goal (aie – a – oio – ei – ueo – ioa – e – uai – ee). He constructed a concrete method of killing you, which could also be used to threaten you into obedience.>

“I see,” said the bare-legged White Queen in a white casual dress. “That is one way of looking at it.”

However…

“But if that was what Doctor S wanted, I imagine he would have worked to build it himself. If you ask me, it is most accurate to say my brother ended up growing beyond Doctor S’s expectations.”

<Beyond his expectations?>

That was important, but the preceding words were even more curious.

<He ended up growing?>

This oppressive home was enough to know that Doctor S had been a crucible of malice in human form. Shigara Masami had led the Queen’s Miniature Garden which had gathered unfortunate children from around the world, but even she was overwhelmed by this. This small house was even deeper, darker, and heavier than that shelter constructed deep underground. The Miniature Garden had been equipped with everything necessary for a normal life. The children had been able to swim in the pool, eat cake, and smile together. But it felt like this house would cause a normal person’s soul to rot away if they so much as breathed in its air.

The White Queen breathed an exasperated sigh while tugging down the short hem of her casual dress.

As if to say that boy would not just take it if he were thrown into an artificial hell.

“Have you forgotten?”

<Forgotten what?>

As soon as she asked that, she heard that light pitter-patter again.

It was far too light to think it was footsteps.

A small girl entered the children’s room. Shigara Masami gasped, but the girl must not have been able to see her.

“There we go.”

The small girl climbed up to the top bunk and pressed her small palm against the ceiling. No, a square of the ceiling slid aside to reveal the attic space.

“A minicar, a ball, and an animal encyclopedia. They’re safe now.”

Shigara Masami tilted her head, so the White Queen explained.

“This house only contained the things Doctor S felt were necessary, so he would throw out everything else. Even if they belonged to my brother.”

<You mean she secretly stole back Kyousuke-kun’s discarded toys and hid them in the attic?>

“Yes. That must have been a part of life here. I imagine their mother drew Doctor S’s attention while she was digging through the trash.”

A boy called to the girl from the hallway.

The young girl quickly closed up the ceiling, climbed down from the bed, grabbed two cheap hair ties from the study desk, and left the room.

The siblings could be heard speaking in the hallway.

“My hair is in my eyes. Fix it.”

“What do you want?”

“I want twintails today!”

Shigara Masami was curious about the hallway, but the voices suddenly ended.

She gasped because she had not heard the footsteps leaving.

The source of the voices had clearly just disappeared. As if they had never existed in the first place.

The White Queen toyed with her own hair and sighed with an indescribable look on her face.

“Let’s get back on topic. It is true this was a lab for Doctor S to realize his ugly dream. My brother’s dignity was trampled on and his desperate resistance rang hollow as his mother and little sister continued to be beaten before his eyes. But do you really think every little thing went according to plan for that scum of a man? This lab was ultimately shut down, if you recall.”

<Ah,> said Shigara Masami in belated realization.

“You do not seem very familiar with Doctor S. But since all of the Miniature Garden children were given the name ‘Shiroyama’, I assume he had to have held an important position in that project you led.”

<To be honest, I did know Kyousuke-kun had been turned into a precision-guided missile. Queen, I also knew about the plan to assassinate you. But I simply could not figure it all out. Even at the top of all three major powers with Award 3000, I could not stop that giant organization from moving forward. I also never figured out how Doctor S had made Kyousuke-kun the way he was.>

However.

Until now, it may have slipped Shigara Masami’s mind because the past she saw here was just so raw.

But history revealed how it had all ended.

At some point, the experiment at the Shiroyama house had ended and they had withdrawn from here while disguising it as a family breaking up.

Help me.

The White Queen spoke a certain phrase.

It was a perfectly normal pair of words. It may have been even more ubiquitous than the “I’ll kill you” that felt like the catch phrase of delinquents everywhere.

But at times, that phrase carried meaning that outweighed everything else in the world.

“Brother understands the true meaning of those words. So no matter the environment or circumstances, he will not stop once he hears them. He will come running even if it means making an enemy of the entire world. If the incident at the Queen’s Miniature Garden was the trigger, than perhaps we should say this house was where the gun was cocked. It all leads back to here.”

Shigara Masami had thought the events here had already ended.

She had thought they were simply chasing the traces of a tragic past.

But the White Queen’s words changed things. What had young Shiroyama Kyousuke done? Had he fought back against Doctor S? And what had that meant for the mother and little sister whose faces he could no longer remember?

Had he won or lost?

Day in and day out, Shiroyama Kyousuke had continued to sharpen his fangs while tasting humiliation in his pursuit of that phrase when it was spoken in complete and utter distress, but had he been successful here or not?

<What did…?>

Shigara Masami felt like she was finally opening Pandora’s Box.

She gulped and completed her question.

<What did Kyousuke-kun do to Doctor S???>

But just then…

“Gah, red alert!! Get out of there! You need to get out of there! Kyousuke-chan and his vessel moved back inside and I can’t see them through the first floor windows. They’re probably climbing the stairs to the second floor!! You can’t run or hide in that cramped house and your journey to learn what it means to be human is over if he finds you!!”

Biondetta’s warning stabbed into their eardrums through their earphones.

The holy ground’s atmosphere was shattered instantly.

Shigara Masami grimaced and the White Queen’s shoulders relaxed somewhat.

“Let’s end it here.”

<But…>

“I have all the information I need. And we did not come to view these traces of the past in order to reveal the truth. That is only the means to an end. If I run into my brother here, it all falls apart. I must avoid that at all costs.”

<…>

Shigara Masami could hear the creaking of the stairs. The footsteps had real weight to them, so these were not tiny illusions climbing the stairs.

The ponytail researcher bit her lip, hesitated, and then made up her mind.

<Okay, fine. We can continue this later.>

They were quick to action.

The White Queen and Shigara Masami cut across the children’s room and prepared to climb onto the balcony railing that did not have a hint of rust even after a decade.

Sensing someone’s eyes on her, Shigara Masami looked back and saw a small girl looking at her from the children’s room.

No, the girl would not actually be able to see her.

No matter how clearly abused she might be, reaching out a helping hand would accomplish nothing.

<~ ~ ~>

The researcher squeezed her eyes shut as if shaking free of something.

She faced the White Queen once more and the two of them jumped from the balcony.

“Queen, the wind is pushing up your dress!!” warned Biondetta.

“Oh, pardon me.”

After landing in the yard, they climbed over the concrete wall. And then…

<Wait, what?>

Rain poured down on their heads like from an overturned bucket. They looked up and saw thick and dark rainclouds. They also heard the intermittent rumbling of thunder.

Sudden downpours were common in midsummer, but that was not enough to explain this.

The sky had been clear as could be just a moment before.

“The sun,” said the White Queen with her soaked casual dress clinging to her skin.

Only then did Shigara Masami notice the overall coloration of their surroundings.

It was dusk.

The dark clouds overhead added to the darkness, but the sun’s position in the sky made no sense. And this rainfall had not just started. In fact, it looked like it was starting to let up. The orange of sunset managed to pierce through some gaps in the clouds.

Shigara Masami forgot all about the rain hitting her as she muttered in disbelief.

<But we only spent a few minutes in there. All we did was check the children’s room, right?>

“The flow of time can grow stagnant in places. You must have known that. We should count ourselves lucky that we did not find a few centuries had passed when we left.”

<…>

“Heyyy,” called Biondetta. “You’re really starting to worry me, so could you at least tell me whether you’re alive or not?”

They were afraid to ask.

It was raining outside and sunny inside. So how had Biondetta kept a consistent image in her head while she watched them from afar?

Part 4

Meinokawa Aoi and Shigara Masami were not actually the only ones interested in Shiroyama Kyousuke’s little sister.

It was 6PM, making it evening.

The cicada cries were shifting to the evening cicadas. As desolate as everything looked, the area was still quite warm. The night would almost certainly be a sweltering one.

“Oh, my. It seems the legends about Japanese government offices closing early were true.”

Sinceria, ruler of Kingdom F, elegantly placed a hand on her cheek when she learned she would have to wait. And what she did next went without saying.

“Via, don’t forget your straw hat.”

“Ugh, but it makes my head too hot.”

“C’mon, make sure you get plenty of water. C’mon, c’mon.”

“What is with you, mom? You’ve been all over me for a while now.”

Just then, the mother’s long ears heard a quiet sound. Rachel had tapped the window twice with a flathead screwdriver. She did so right next to the internal lock. The spider webs of cracks intersected and she skillfully removed a small triangle of glass.

After unlocking the window in a way that showed she knew exactly what she was doing, the knight in silver armor and a tight skirt turned back toward Sinceria.

“You may enter now, my queen.”

“I know I asked you to do this, but the civil war really changed you, Rachel. You used to flatly refuse to do anything that violated your idea of chivalry.”

“I realized it is a knight’s duty to sully her own name if it will help Kingdom F.”

“That phrasing is a bit worrisome, though.”

The ruler in a blue dress managed to look graceful even when she was breaking in through a window.

This was the city hall of a rundown rural city.

Since the employees had gone home, the air conditioning and lights were off. It was the worst possible venue for experiencing Japan’s sauna-like weather.

Olivia gulped down a bottle of carbonated water in an insulating cover before asking a question.

“So we can find Onii-chan’s secrets here?”

“If I am correct about something, yes. We must understand his weaknesses and flaws if we are to give him good advice.” Sinceria raised a finger while walking gracefully through the city hall. “Doctor S established a small lab in this rural city while disguising it as a normal family. Setting aside whether that experiment was a success or failure, he eventually withdrew by making it look like the family broke apart and skipped town.”

“What does that matter?”

“That means he did not go through the proper procedure for a change of residence. When a house is abandoned, an alert is carefully preserved to prevent any legal trouble later on. Which means…”

Long-eared Sinceria had snuck into the document storage room.

“I imagine the certificate of residence and family register are still here.”

This incident existed on such a ridiculous scale that the White Queen had erased the data from the world, but since she had not intentionally concealed it, there was a good chance that erasure had not been very thorough.

The biggest risk was the possibility of them being declared dead in absentia because enough time had passed since they went missing. That normally meant around 7 years, but in special cases such as a war or shipwreck, the declaration could be made in less than a year.

7 years.

Japanese high schools apparently did not allow students to skip years, so given Kyousuke’s age, that limit would have already passed. If a request had been made, he would have been legally declared dead and the certificate of residence would have been erased. If the government office knew they could remove the records for that empty house without any legal trouble, they would not have held onto the documents any longer.

However, that system generally only came into play when processing an inheritance, so that would not have happened unless someone made a complaint in family court. Simply put, it was all up to chance.

“Summoners and vessels with a certain number of Awards vanish from normal people’s awareness. Hopefully that is one more reasons that the documents were simply forgotten in here.”

“This might be a commuter town with a declining population, but I doubt they could store all their documents in paper.”

“Rachel, you handle the specifics.”

Everything was digitized in the modern age, but not all of that was available for access online. Certificates of residence could be printed off from a convenience store copier, but that did not mean you could just access anything you wanted by hacking in from a net café.

In the end, you could steal far more data by sneaking into the building the old fashioned way and accessing one of the internal computers.

Bespectacled Rachel did not use the old-fashioned and yellowing computer and keyboard. She instead attached her mobile device with a cable and used that. That skipped the need for a username and password and it would not leave anything in the host device’s access logs. The mobile device was originally meant to mess with Toy Dream who had indirectly attacked Kingdom F. It was extremely useful, but since other techniques were needed to sneak into the target facility, it was not all that attractive to normal hackers.

“Shiroyama, Shiroyama, Shiroyama… That seems to be a common name in this country.”

“That is intentional. And we know the full name for one family member. Have you found Shiroyama Kyousuke?”

“Here he is,” replied Rachel while displaying the result on the old monitor.

Doctor S. Despite the impressive-sounding nickname, his real name was surprisingly mundane. So was Shiroyama Kyousuke for that matter. It was unclear if this was their real names or if they had all taken fake names so their “family” would not stand out.

It also listed the names of Kyousuke’s mother and little sister.

However.

“Just their names? Are there no photos?”

“This is only a certificate of residence. A national ID card would probably have a photo, though.”

“Rachel, search these full names on the external internet. Maybe you can find photos from a school event or a personal social media account.”

“Understood, my queen. However…”

“Yes, I know.”

Shiroyama Kyousuke had been 5 or 6 at the time. His little sister would have been even younger. They may or may not have even entered elementary school by that point and it was unlikely they would have had their own social media accounts. Insurance cards did not include photos and they would not have any kind of license at that age. There were cameras everywhere you went in the modern age and they would have been photographed at some point, but that was useless if there was no way to search for it.

But luck was on their side.

Glasses knight Rachel found something while searching through some regional community sites.

“Passports.”

“Rachel?”

“It seems the shopping district ran a foreign travel program to get the residents of the commuter town to take a foreign vacation once a year. And even an infant less than a year old will have a photo on their passport. We can track them down like this!!”

“Well done. You have my praise as a queen.”

Luckily, the ticket requests were made in the same building as the city hall. With the declining population and reductions in funding, they had likely been forced to run multiple public agencies from the same building to reduce costs. That saved Sinceria’s group the effort of breaking into another building.

Once they walked to a different room and hacked into the computer there with Rachel’s mobile device, they finally found it.

They found Shiroyama Kyousuke’s little sister.

They found a photo of her face.

But despite finding the data they were looking for, Olivia frowned.

“Isn’t that…?”

Part 5

The cocoon had grown to 8km.

The world would end once it reached 10km.

It was hardly surprising some people were starting to think about the afterlife.

“There is nothing at all to worry about. This is the predetermined judgment. None of us have any reason to worry. If you have led a blameless life, then relax and wait for the time to come.”

“…”

“Praise be to the White Queen!! She waits for us beyond the gods and she is the one and only being who will save our souls!!”

Blue bikini Azalea Magentarain gave an annoyed look to the nun who was kneeling emotionally on the beach. Azalea was not the only person in Government’s secret prison on South America’s Devil’s Island.

The Saint.

Just like Azalea, that woman had been a Queen worshiper from Bridesmaid, but while Azalea had been freed from those bonds, the nun had not. Perhaps as a sign of her suppressed fear, she wore her habit despite the heat and she continually offered prayers to the White Queen with a glow of ecstasy in her eyes.

They had received a few reports from Maria Heartocean.

About the cocoon and other things.

“If you’re that afraid of dying, why not jump ship and worship the even-more-powerful Colorless Little Girl?”

“Do not be silly. No one is stronger than White Queen. Especially not some human-made Unexplored-class!!”

“It’s not like you know where the White Queen came from. If she was born from a normal human mother, then you might as well have just spat on her existence.”

“Not to worry. People make mistakes during our journey to find the right way through life. The White Queen is truly unfathomable, so she would never get angry over something so trivial!!”

The nun always had an answer.

Or rather, if she let her argument be defeated, she would be forced to accept a truth that terrified her.

The world would soon be destroyed.

And she did not hold a priority ticket to salvation.

(But when you get down to it…)

Which was the real danger: the White Queen or the cocoon?

The Colorless Little Girl had been created to oppose the White Queen and she had in fact defeated the Queen. It was hard to believe, but if you built a theory on that information, didn’t it mean a threat greater than the Queen had been introduced to the world?

In the field of weaponry, you always struck back when outdone.

No one could hold a monopoly over a new weapon forever. Once they were used in battle, the enemy could analyze them, collect malfunctioning or damaged units from the battlefield, and produce weapons of equal or greater capability. When that process repeated, the lethality of the weapons would rise endlessly. You always needed something more powerful than your enemy. It was the same with grenades, poison gas, landmines, tanks, missiles, and everything else. That back-and-forth meant the developers could never stop working.

If the cocoon was a part of the Queen, the Colorless Little Girl would react to its growth.

That was on the assumption that Maria had found the correct answer, but it was apparently true that Unexplored-class had been built to kill the Queen.

“In theory, anyone should be able to summon the Colorless Little Girl if the conditions are right.”

“What a vile thought. Who would want the power to harm the Queen!?”

“And yet I haven’t heard of anyone other than Shiroyama Kyousuke succeeding. I would think at least someone would try it with the entire world boiling over like this.”

Was that because she had been broken?

Or was there some other reason?

Part 6

“Nghghgghgh.”

“What is it now, Aoi?”

“We are in a stuffy business hotel eating ordinary convenience store bentos. This is supposed to be a trip, so where is the local color!?”

It was night.

Kyousuke and Aoi had left that house for the time being. That was partially because they were unsure what effects the distorted flow of time would have.

Aoi’s hair was wet because she was fresh from the bath and she was throwing a fit on the bed while wearing a starchy towel-material bathrobe with no logo on it. The difference in behavior from the train was likely due to growing accustomed to the excitement of the trip. It was like growing homesick for white rice and miso soup during the second half of a foreign vacation. Her fit was causing the bathrobe to slip out of place quite a bit. And while she was behaving very childishly, she did not seem to be wearing a sarashi or fundoshi at the moment.

They had been lucky enough to find this business hotel in a commuter town that had failed to become a tourist location or an office town. There were rarely any visitors outside of the local residents. Kyousuke had feared the possibility of having to spend a sleepless night in that small house that felt like a nightmare preserved in formaldehyde, so he was delighted with the hotel.

“Wait, is the pay-per-view broken on this thing!?” complained Aoi. “I inserted the card I bought at the vending machine!!”

“Is that what you call local color?”

It was the same as a convenience store or an online store. This business hotel chain had been built here even if it was guaranteed to lose money just because the company wanted their signs in every part of the country. Just like phone booths and mailboxes, they felt like a part of the public infrastructure.

“The biggest problem with this hotel is the lack of a hot spring. What is with that tiny bathtub!? You can’t even stretch out your legs! And the closest thing to ‘a view’ is the sink, the small mirror with the corner broken off, and the toilet! Argh, I finally got to leave that damp cave, so where is my moon-viewing sake!?”

“Can you even drink sake?”

“I have been running for hundreds of years, so surely you do not think I am too young. Besides, my entire body is fake!”

…He was more curious about why the humans who had made her had felt the need to make her so she could get drunk. Just like all the excess icons lined up on the desktop of a commercial computer, it felt like they had too much time left over and decided to add a bunch of unnecessary stuff.

Aoi used the bed springs to hop up, sat cross-legged despite only having a bathrobe to cover her nudity, and popped off the lid of the One Cup Yokozuna she no longer had a use for.

“Um, hey,” said Kyousuke.

“What!?”

“Isn’t that my bed? You were rolling around on the other one earlier!”

“Shut up, pervert boy. I’ll cover both of them with my scent and warmth and there’s nothing you can do about it!!”

Why did the world’s oldest look so at home with some convenience store sake in hand? Not many women could hold an unwieldy One Cup Yokozuna as comfortably as a middle-aged man at a horse-racing track. She also had convenience store edamame on the side table.

“Pwah… Now, then.”

“Yes?”

Aoi continued while her unnecessary functionality caused even her nape to flush red.

“Boy, are you sure you should have come all the way back to the station area? You made it sound like we could have lied in wait for the White Queen.”

“More than that, I’m pretty sure she was there with us during the day.”

“Bff!?”

Aoi spat out her sake (which actually had a pretty high alcohol content).

She reacted like someone who had walked down a forest trail as a neighborhood association test of courage and then later heard a man-eating tiger had been on the loose after escaping from the zoo.

Kyousuke breathed a heavy sigh.

“Looking back on it, they’re probably on too high a level for most things. If we set up cameras and sensors all around the house, I bet they would slip right past them. We can’t hope to limit their options either, so we’ll have to predict what the White Queen and Shigara Masami are thinking.”

That put a terribly complicated look on Meinokawa Aoi’s face.

As a Joruri Method, she was not actually human, but…

“Predict what the Queen and that Award 3000 are thinking? Is that even possible?”

“We have no choice.”

If Shiroyama Kyousuke made his decisions based on what was possible or not, he would have given up on life and succumbed to the White Queen a long time ago. This was past the point of debating whether or not they could do it.

“What matters most is recovering the missing data about my mom and little sister. That house is definitely important in that regard, but staying there with nothing in mind won’t teach us anything. We need to know what to look for and where to look.”

“Then allow me to ask about something.”

“?”

“The White Queen is only interested in you. Since she has not appeared before you in the present, she must be interested in the data surrounding you instead of you directly. For example, your past. There was no sign of her trying anything at the ruins of the Queen’s Miniature Garden, so she must be focused on Doctor S’s research which predates that. And that means this commuter town that is barely noticeable on the map.”

“Yes? We’ve discussed all that before.”

“Now for my question: Why is the White Queen obsessed with you in the first place?”

She chugged the clear liquid.

With the chest of her bathrobe dangerously loose, she winked, raised a finger, and then pointed that finger at Kyousuke.

That Joruri Method was the spitting image of the White Queen and she asked another question to clarify.

“Or to put it another way: who is the White Queen?”

“…”

“A direct timeline is meaningless when talking about her. She could easily have rewritten the past after being born in the present, so I am going to risk suggesting a bold theory. Why does she call you ‘brother’? Or to put it more clearly, is the White Queen your little sister?”

That was the decisive question.

Silence reigned for a while.

Finally, Shiroyama Kyousuke sighed softly.

And he answered.

No, that isn’t what this is.

Part 7

BloodSign v09 BW6.jpg

Meanwhile, the White Queen was silently pressing the mouth of a paper cup against the wall. She was down on all fours and the way her casual dress clung to her figure was quite risqué when it came to her butt.

A girl in love was cutest when she somewhat lost control of herself!!

“……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………”

<Umm, I really don’t think that’s going to help pick up the sound. Scientifically speaking.>

Shigara Masami gently chided her while attaching the supplied coffee filter to her mug and pouring in water from the hot water dispenser.

The air conditioning was nearly dead, but when they tried opening the window, they found the night breeze to be chilly. They had expected a sweltering night after how awfully hot it was through the evening, so this was a surprise. Maybe because this was not a heat island. Thanks to that, they wanted something to warm their bodies. They always seemed to be regulating their body temperatures in one direction or the other.

<Biondetta-chan, how much sugar do you want?>

“It would be great if you could give me four sticks of sugar, three packets of milk, and then some cream, honey, caramel, brown sugar, meringue, and maple syrup. I would really like some coconut milk and orange peel to help bring out the summer flavor, but I will show some restraint.”

<Aren’t some of those pretty much the same thing? Like sugar and brown sugar, honey and maple syrup, or cream and meringue?>

“Don’t be dumb, you complete fuckhead!!”

<Oh, dear. Now you’ve said it. You shouldn’t talk like that to a woman, you know? And this coffee’s flavor changes dramatically depending on how you prepare it. I hope you’re ready for an ultra-bitter bomb as punishment!!>

Shiroyama Kyousuke should have considered it more rationally.

If this was the one business hotel in the rural city, then anyone visiting would naturally end up there. Most likely, Sinceria, Olivia, and the others from Kingdom F had a room there as well.

<The real trick to perfect coffee is adding a few drops of brandy.>

“Nothing good ever comes from giving you alcohol. How many times do you think I saw you curled up on the floor with a bottle of vodka back in the Miniature Garden?”

<Ehh? You don’t want to make something fancy like a café royale!? You put a sugar cube on the spoon like this, let it soak in brandy, and heat it with a lighter until there’s a blue ball of fire! Then you drop it into a cup of coffee and – kyah! – it’s so adult! Kyah, kyah☆>

“Queen, restrain that alcoholic before she sets off the smoke detector! Hurry!!”

Kyousuke’s mistake may have been thinking of them as supernatural beings.

While Biondetta still counted as human despite modifying half her body with artificial bones, the other two would not starve to death just because they had nothing to eat. But that did not mean they would be satisfied only eating fog and mist.

That may have been part of what it meant to learn what it means to be human.

The waitress demon bent her back in a way that pushed out her large chest, looked up, and gulped down a ridiculous amount of antibiotics like they were coffee milk after a bath.

“I’m surprised,” she said afterwards.

“?”

“That Kyousuke-chan had a little sister.”

“Is it that unusual? I know people like to go on and on about the low birthrate these days, but it isn’t like no one has multiple children anymore.”

“That wasn’t what I meant.”

Biondetta seemed unsure how to put it, so Shigara Masami cut in.

<That’s right. I let it wait because we had to avoid Kyousuke-kun, but who was that girl? And does it have to do with what you always say, Queen?>

“…”

<You always call Kyousuke-kun your “brother”, don’t you?>

Everyone would draw a connection between those two facts.

However.

“No.”

The White Queen breathed a heavy sigh after moving away from the wall.

She seemed to have regained something when she entered that house.

“If that were the case, I might have been able to save him in some other way during those hellish days. But it is not the case. I am not Doctor S’s daughter.”

Shigara Masami and Biondetta exchanged a glance. They were clearly wondering the same thing.

Then who was that little sister seen in Shiroyama Kyousuke’s past?

Who was that girl from those painful memories? Who was that girl who had introduced something other than pain to those memories?

“You are looking at this wrong.”

The White Queen rejected the idea even further as if forcing them in the right direction.

Her journey to learn what it means to be human was gradually bearing fruit.

“We are pursuing data concerning my brother’s past, not data concerning his little sister’s past. Do not forget that.”

“Yes, but…”

<That’s right. I don’t think this is something we can just ignore.>

“Sigh.” The White Queen rubbed her temples with her index fingers. “Yes, I suppose she is bound to come up if we are following my brother’s past. But let me lay out the basic framework of that story: that house was Doctor S’s lab. Doctor S lived there with my brother, his mother, and his little sister. Doctor S followed his own manual to apply pressure to my brother and his mother and little sister fell victim to Doctor S’s violence in the process. My brother already had the makings of what Doctor S wanted, so hitting him and beating him would not be enough to break him. So Doctor S instead beat the family members he cared for. All while laughing and saying it was his fault.”

It was simple enough when spelled out like that, but the reality of it had to have been so much more sticky and horrific. Shigara Masami had trouble imagining it and she had directly stood in the rampaging White Queen’s path to allow as many children as possible to escape the Queen’s Miniature Garden. Researchers came in any number of forms, but Doctor S clearly lacked anything resembling human morals or brakes.

But that was not the White Queen’s main point.

“So a question: where did my brother’s hope lie during those unbearably hellish days?”

“Eh?”

That question shocked Biondetta.

The answer may have come to her so quickly because she saw herself as Kyousuke’s big sister.

“Well, wouldn’t that be his mother and little sister? If he had been alone there, he wouldn’t have had a reason to bear with it all.”

“Yes, that is correct. It might seem cliché, but that was what supported his heart. He wanted to save his mother and little sister who were being beaten in his place as if to teach him a lesson. He wanted to gain the strength to outdo Doctor S and free his family. That was the only thing on his mind as he so valiantly completed all the tasks presented to him. However.”

The White Queen paused there.

She had a subdued look on her face because not even she knew what expression was appropriate here.

“Like I said, that small house was Doctor S’s lab. Shigara Masami, you intuitively sensed it as soon as you saw it for yourself. Everything in that house served a purpose. Even the positions of the pencils and erasers.”

<What about it?>

“Another question: what role did the mother and little sister play? And who had placed them in that role?”

That question left the other two’s minds blank.

The answer to that question was certainly a possibility, but even considering something so horrific felt taboo or profane.

“To repeat: that small house was Doctor S’s lab and everything there served a purpose. It was all set up to complete the methodology for surpassing the limits of the Blood-Sign Summoning Ceremony to both summon and control me, the White Queen. My brother was being made stronger for that purpose. He was being made into a precision-guided missile that would never give up once he set his sights on something.”

<Wait, you can’t be serious. That can’t possibly be true, can it!?>

In other words…

In other words…

In other words…

“His mother and little sister were in on it. Those family members were no more than staff members or assistants prepared by Doctor S. It was all meant to construct a sob story to inspire my brother to fight when he otherwise would have refused.”

Part 8

“Unforgivable.”

Someone’s shoulders were trembling.

It was Meinokawa Aoi who looked so uncannily like the White Queen.

And this was not due to the alcohol.

BloodSign v09 BW7.jpg

“Curse that Doctor S!! Has he no respect for people’s hearts!? Argh, you should have told me sooner! I should have killed that bastard before you handed him over to Government!!”

She started making chronologically impossible complaints. Meinokawa Aoi had been attacked and torn to pieces by the White Queen at the start of that mess, so she had been entirely left out of the Houbi Village incident where Doctor S and Olivia had been plotting behind the scenes.

But she was so angry that slipped her mind.

Even though Kyousuke felt abandoned by his own memories since he could not remember their names or what they looked like.

“Aoi.”

“What!?”

“Why are you crying?”

When she heard that, the silver-haired shrine maiden pulled the sheet up over her head.

“How should I know?” she sulked from below the sheet.

But it was not over yet.

There was still more to this hopeless story.

The words “help me” had yet to appear.

Sinceria Report 04

“What are you doing, mom?”

“Hee hee hee. I was thinking a capable mother should review the day’s results.”

Running water could be heard through the door because Rachel, the glasses knight, was taking a shower.

Sinceria held an ordinary tablet in a business hotel room. Cheap but high performance was how the ruler of Kingdom F did things. Olivia, who still wore her school swimsuit with decorative cloth and pareo, peeked at the screen and saw the girls they had spoken to before arriving in this rural city.

Sekurtiti was not the only one.

“Shigara Masami.” Sinceria slowly pronounced the name with long ears twitching while sitting on the bed. “The White Queen overshadows her, but she has made herself enough of a legend on her own. And there is very little information on her. So it is fortunate we managed to contact her early on. Let’s review the information for Kyousuke’s sake too.”

Yes.

The screen displayed a woman with a long black ponytail and a tight skirt suit. She looked like Shigara Masami, but she was not. Her name was Himekawa Mika. That vessel had so looked up to Shigara Masami that she had remade herself to look just like her. The best way to identify her may have been the intentionally torn sides of her tight skirt.

She had apparently fought alongside Kyousuke during the incident related to Pandemonium and the Deltaston family, but according to her…

“There is not much I know. I had never even heard of the Queen’s Miniature Garden, much less the fact that she was Freedom Award 3000.”

She had been very modest at first, but she had gradually dug deeper into the issue as time passed.

There was a simple reason for that: the mug of beer in her hand in the middle of the day.

“I wonder if the real one likes alcohol too. Like you do, mom.”

“Maybe so, but your mother does not get so woozy even after drinking several beers. And just like Meinokawa Aoi copies the White Queen’s appearance to help get into her mindset, I assume Himekawa Mika’s behavior is copied after Shigara Masami to an extent.”

“But as a researcher,” continued Himekawa after finishing off her beer like some kind of ritual. “She tended to be very precise and something of a perfectionist. So she was better at using the brakes than the gas pedal. If she decided it would be dangerous to go any further, she could cut off all desire from there on. She would rationally step back and reassess the big picture. …If she used that side of her in the field of combat, her fighting style was probably something like a spider or antlion. Instead of making any big moves herself, she would persistently poke at her opponent and wait for them to adapt to her pace. She was always true to the fundamentals and made no mistakes herself, so I imagine she would use even a single mistake from her enemy to destroy them with more and more shots fired with perfect accuracy.”

“Ugh,” groaned Olivia.

Sinceria and Olivia viewed the world of the Summoning Ceremony through the lens of a vessel, but they still had their thoughts about Himekawa Mika’s analysis. They had no desire to take on someone who gradually wore down their opponent’s nerves and waited for them to make a mistake.

It would be like playing tennis against a thick wall.

You could hit the ball back a thousand or even ten thousand times, but if your racket missed the ball just once, you lost. It would be like the battle against your enemy had suddenly transformed into a battle against yourself. How long would each and every second feel to a summoner fighting Shigara Masami?

That sounds like an even more perfected form of Onii-chan.

“Yes.”

Shiroyama Kyousuke was a highly variable summoner who would stick to the fundamentals to an extent, but he had a tendency to rely on tricky stunts when it really mattered. A look at their battle records showed that Biondetta was less reliant on gambles because she stuck to underhanded methods from beginning to end.

“I imagine it was Shigara Masami as a researcher who taught them the basics. What we don’t know is how much of an influence she had on Biondetta and the other survivors of the Miniature Garden. But there must have been some influence.”

Rachel and the other Kingdom F knights were trained as summoners using a different method from the Miniature Garden, but what would happen if they got into a fight with Shigara Masami? Sinceria could not say it out loud because it would infuriate Rachel, but based on the results during Kingdom F’s civil war, she doubted Knight Representative Rachel could defeat Miniature-Garden-trained Kyousuke. And it was best to assume Shigara Masami was on a level even higher than Kyousuke.

In that case…

“We’re moving on to someone else?” asked Olivia.

“This is Ellie Slide. She is well known as an incense expert.”

The tablet displayed a girl about as tall as Olivia. Her skin was tanned a healthy brown with bright swimsuit tan lines. Her blonde hair was not worn up and was left unkempt. And yet she also had an intellectual face that included glasses.

“Award 3000?” she sounded exasperated from the start. “If someone like that really does exist, you would have to be an idiot to challenge them in the Summoning Ceremony. It would be a waste of time.”

The way she rejected straightforward work was similar to Kyousuke but also somehow different.

He was known to say the battle began before the preparations for the Summoning Ceremony were complete and he would often settle things with a surprise attack before any Materials had been summoned. But that also meant he was accepting his opponent’s skill and was afraid of being worn down by a serious battle with them.

Kyousuke might look like he reigned supreme at the very top, but he never underestimated his enemy.

It was because he recognized their skill that he did not hold back.

“But even if someone has earned Awards in the quadruple digits, they are still bound to the Blood-Sign System. The stronger they become, the harder it is to escape the field they have mastered. That means there is nothing to guarantee their strength without the foundation of those basic rules. A boxer who is undefeated in the ring will not necessarily be able to hold their own in a street fight, and vice-versa. This has nothing to do with who is better. It is a simple concept: if you cannot defeat the individual, then shake up their world instead.”

“I don’t like her,” said Olivia.

“My, my, Via. You shouldn’t be so quick to judge.”

“It’s simple.” On the screen, Ellie Slide spoke with scorn in her voice. “You could tamper with their Incense Grenades so they won’t detonate, or you could steal their Blood-Sign. Either way, you just have to prevent them from starting a battle using the Blood-Sign Summoning Ceremony. I am an incense expert, so I do not make a living with direct fistfights. I am a coward who always looks for a way around such things.”

Facts

  • The house Doctor S used as a lab was preserved as if time had stopped. Presumably, this was the result of the heavy burden placed on it by the White Queen’s power.
  • Shiroyama Kyousuke’s predictions of the White Queen’s actions leave something to be desired in the accuracy department, so the two of them have just missed each other a few times. But Shigara Masami and Biondetta’s familiarity with his habits has played a role in this.
  • Sinceria and Olivia seemed to recognize the little sister they saw in the passport photo.
  • Shiroyama Kyousuke’s little sister was not the White Queen.
  • Everything in that small house served a purpose. Shiroyama Kyousuke’s mother and little sister were no more than staff members or assistants hired by Doctor S. Doctor S used them to give Kyousuke someone to protect in order to keep him working when he would have broken on his own.
  • And you must not forget. Feeling anger over the past is all well and good, but Shigara Masami and Biondetta have trampled on Kyousuke’s trust just like his former family did.


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